What Does It Mean to Pray a Jury Trial in Maryland?

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Maryland’s court procedure is stacked with archaic and complicated terms. Our  criminal defense lawyers are sometimes asked what it means to pay a jury trial in Maryland. The term no longer has any religious relevance. A jury trial prayer or demand is a request for a case to be moved from General District to Circuit Court where the defendant can appear before a jury.

It may be advantageous to the defendant to pray a jury trial in Maryland but this will depend on the circumstances of the case. Our Baltimore criminal defense lawyers can advise you of the advantages and disadvantages of making this move.

Can All Maryland District Court Criminal Cases be Prayed to Circuit Court?

Not all district court cases can be prayed up to the Circuit Court. Misdemeanors are either eligible for jury trial or must remain in District Court where the defendant appears before a judge.

The right to a jury trial in Maryland depends on the seriousness of the alleged offense. If a criminal or traffic violation case carries a penalty of over 90 days’ incarceration, the defendant has a right to a trial by jury. In civil cases, the defendant has a right to pray a personal injury case to a jury trial when the damages claimed are over $10,000.

Maryland courts do not permit the defendant to pray a jury trial if the charges carry a maximum of less than 90 days’ incarceration.

The prosecutor in the district court has no control over the defendant’s decision to pray a jury trial in an eligible case. The defendant does not have to give prior notice to the court.

Can Jury Trials Be Held in the District Court in Maryland?

No jury trials are held in Maryland’s district courts. Cases on the district court docket are held in front of a bench judge who decides if the accused is guilty or not guilty of the crime in question. The jury trial prayer or jury trial demand allows a defendant whose case is eligible for a jury trial to have his or her case heard in Circuit Court in front of a jury. A defendant who appears in the Circuit Court can decide whether the case should be heard before a jury or a judge. This is an important decision as either the judge or the jury will decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty of a crime.

Advantages of Praying a Jury Trial in Maryland

Your Maryland criminal defense lawyer can advise you on whether your case should be prayed. It’s important to talk to a lawyer who knows the judges and the prosecutors who will be involved in your case. When a case is prayed, you will receive a different judge and probably a different prosecutor in the Circuit Court. Often the case will be delayed due to the change in courts. This may give you more time to work on your case.  The Baltimore Sun described praying a jury trial as a “common stalling tactic’ by defendants.

Back in 2008, The Sun reported as many as 65 misdemeanor cases a day were being transferred from District Courts to Circuit Court in Baltimore, swamping the courts system.

The Sun noted long delays which meant victims and witnesses were tiring of the process and the cases were often dropped in Circuit Court.  Cities and counties brought in expedited systems in the following years. The changes ironed out some of the issues with delays.

The Circuit Court for Baltimore City notes when a jury trial is prayed in District Court, the court assigns a trial date within 21 to 24 days. The continuance is longer in some counties. However, other Maryland counties offer little or no continuance. Anne Arundel County has a same day/next day jury trial program. It means a case prayed in the morning in the District Court can be held in the Circuit Court in the afternoon or the next day.

Should I Opt to Pray a Jury Trial in Maryland?

The decision whether or not to opt for a jury trial should be made on a case by case basis. Consult with your attorney on whether a jury trial is the best option for you. First, get clarification of whether your case in District Court is eligible for a jury trial. All cases are unique. It may be beneficial for your case to remain in District Court and be decided by a bench judge. Alternatively, moving a case could offer a more favorable outcome. Your defense attorney will know the policies and personnel of each court but there is no guarantee of a favorable outcome.

A continuance can be beneficial in some cases but it’s unlikely to buy you much more time. You should consider whether certain facts in your case mean a jury is going to be more sympathetic to you than a judge. Factors such as the District Court judge’s reputation for giving a defendant a second chance and the prosecutors who will handle the case are relevant. Also, consider how sympathetic a jury is likely to be to your case. Are 12 jurors likely to be swayed by your arguments or will appear before a jury be counterproductive? Your Maryland criminal defense attorney will give you in-depth advice on this issue. The final decision is yours.

Reasons to Pray a Jury Trial in Maryland

  • The district court judge has a reputation for being unsympathetic to people charged with crimes like yours;
  • You have an emotive case that jurors are likely to sympathize with;
  • There are gray areas in the case. A jury decision needs to be unanimous. If, for example, there is a question about how police obtained evidence it can be easier to sway a jury than a judge.

Reasons for a Trial Before a Judge in Maryland

  • You have a complicated case. Juries are not legal professionals. Jurors habitually fail to understand complex arguments. If your attorney has a drawn up a technical defense, he or she may influence a judge who is well-versed in the law but not a jury of laypeople.
  • Your case may shock a jury. If your case is likely to make a jury emotional, praying a jury trial can backfire. The members of a jury are unlikely to be sympathetic to child abuse or a rape case no matter how strong your defense. Judges look at these cases in a more dispassionate way.
  • Bench trials are cheaper. You will keep your costs down by keeping your trial in the District Court.

Is There a Right to a Trial by Jury in Maryland?

There is a right to a trial by a jury in Maryland if your offense is serious enough to warrant it. However, the state gives no right to a jury trial for less serious offenses that carry potential sentences of less than three months in prison. Although the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution hails the right to a jury trial in “all criminal prosecutions” the courts have excluded this right for petty crimes.

In a recent case, a Maryland woman appealed her conviction for stealing an item worth less than $100. The punishment for the Maryland theft charge was a term of imprisonment of less than 90 days and a fine of up to $500.

The woman requested a jury trial. Her case was forwarded to the Circuit Court. The state made a successful motion to return the case to the District Court.

The defendant appealed the decision to send the case back to District Court. She argued she had a constitutional right to a jury trial. The court looked at the merits of the woman’s arguments and decided she was not entitled to a jury trial for petty theft.

What Should I Do If I am Unsure About a Jury Trial in Maryland?

It makes sense to talk to a seasoned criminal defense lawyer in Maryland about the pros and cons of a jury trial. The information on our website is not intended to be legal advice. You should talk to a lawyer about the specifics of your case. The attorney may find evidence that makes it advantageous for a judge to consider your case. Alternatively, he or she may find good reasons to pray a jury trial in Maryland.

Why You Should Consult a Lawyer about Praying a Jury Trial in Maryland

Criminal convictions can harm defendants well beyond the time they serve in jail or the fine they pay. A crime lingers on your record and may impact your career prospects. It’s important to know if you can pray a jury trial in Maryland and, if so, whether you should.

Attorney Randolph Rice has a long background in criminal law. He has worked with the gang unit within the State’s Attorney’s Office and learned all the complexities of the criminal law. Please call Rice, Murtha & Psoras at (410) 694-7291.


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